James Lawton: Our game must look to NFL to finally do right by black managers

The National Football League, with more than three-quarters of its players black, can point out that 22 per cent of its head coaches are from 'ethnic minorities', up from six per cent in 2003

It may lack the resonance of Martin Luther King but Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, has perhaps found a useful device in fighting racism.

He believes the Rooney Rule, the idea of an extremely rich white American, could swell the number of black managers in English football beyond the pitiful level now represented by Paul Ince of Notts County and Chris Powell of Charlton Athletic.

Certainly, the 2003 initiative of Dan Rooney, owner of the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, has already significantly corrected an obscene balance.

With more than three-quarters of its players black, the NFL can now point out that 22 per cent of its head coaches are from "ethnic minorities".

Before Rooney demanded, successfully, that all clubs seeking new head coaches from outside their premises must interview black and Hispanic coaches, the figure was just six per cent – and this despite the fact that the brilliant Tony Dungy had done some trail-blazing work at Tampa Bay Buccaneers and would soon launch himself at a Super Bowl-winning campaign with the Indianapolis Colts.

The Rooney Rule is not universally appreciated. The Detroit Lions flouted it when they appointed a new head coach but, despite protests, and many sneers that this was a tokenistic invasion of American rights to be placed up there with the ownership of automatic weapons and the denial of medical help to the poor, the NFL did have the nerve to fine them $200,000.

A legitimate argument is that clubs can indeed show token interest in the qualifications of outstanding black assistant coaches – it happened to Dungy for many years in spite of the enthusiastic backing of his head coach at Pittsburgh, the brilliant, serial Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll – and then just pick out the man they originally fancied.

Yet the Rooney Rule has invited much closer scrutiny of the problem and it just happens that among the swelling percentage of black men in the top job is the Steelers' own Mike Tomlin, who has taken them to two Super Bowls.

Taylor's advocacy of the Rooney Rule was the centrepiece of a recent conversation with Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore. Taylor reports that he told Scudamore: "We have got to give this a chance and make sure that they [prospective black football managers] are fast-tracked. We don't want to make a scene about this but we will if we have to." According to Taylor, Scudamore replied: "Gordon, I absolutely agree with you."

The PFA man also said: "I find it astonishing we can import the likes of Jean Tigana and Ruud Gullit [former managers of Fulham and Chelsea] and there's no problem, but our lads who have grown up in this country have not been given a chance."

It's a cleverly pitched challenge to the ruling authorities in England, underlining the light years separating the governance of most American sport and the English version.

NFL people still gasp when they hear about the divide between rich and poor in the Premier League and the way transfer business is routinely manipulated by agents. In the NFL, an agent receives his first cent only after all business has been cleared by a central office staffed by league lawyers and accountants – and from just one source, his client player.

Now, a mere seven years after its enforcement, there is this talk here of the Rooney Rule. It has perhaps not come by pony express but, who knows, it may just have brought a chink of light in the long night of a very bad scenario.

What is the Rooney rule?

The rule requires NFL teams with senior coaching vacancies to interview at least one candidate from an ethnic minority. Named after Dan Rooney, who hired many African-Americans at his Pittsburgh Steelers franchise, it was established in 2003 after a study found that minorities held just six per cent of senior coaching positions, despite forming a majority in playing staff of 70 per cent.